Wednesday, March 30

The Magic Pill

We all want the magic pill. You know the one. The one that makes the pounds melt away as we sit on the couch watching Oprah. And then we want the other pill, the one that keeps the weight off while allowing us to remain on the couch watching Oprah and noshing on chips, dip, soda, burgers, fries and cheesecake.

Yeah, I want THAT pill. And while we’re at it how about a pill that’ll give me a tight, Playboy-photo-shoot-worthy booty. And legs without a hint of cellulite. And skin like porcelain.

I could keep going, my list is endless, as I’m sure yours is too.

Sadly, those pills don’t exist. But that doesn’t stop companies from marketing miracle cures, touting the benefits of their concoctions, tapping into our desire for the easy way out. I wish it were that easy too. Really I do.

But it’s not. And believing that a pill will do all that it claims can be dangerous, even deadly.

Last fall Consumer Reports did a front-page story on the danger of supplements, highlighting the fact that these substances don’t go through the same rigorous testing and approval as other drugs. According to Consumer Reports, “Of the more than 54,000 dietary supplement products in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, only about a third have some level of safety and effectiveness that is supported by scientific evidence.”

That means that two-thirds, some 36,000 products are being marketed and sold without ANY research to back their claims.

Supplements for weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding are particularly troublesome. They have been known to include hazardous ingredients which can cause serious health issues—changes in blood pressure, liver injury, kidney failure, heart attack and stroke. The FDA warns consumers to be extremely cautious with any product in these categories.

Click here to go to Consumer Reports' list of the dirty dozen of supplement ingredients. These compounds are considered dangerous as they can produce serious side effects. Consumer Reports recommends avoiding products with any of these ingredients.

Wednesday, March 23

Dieting Makes You Cranky

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research asserts that dieting makes people irritable and angry. To which I reply, really? You mean feeling deprived and in a constant mental battle to sustain your self-control puts people on edge? Really? Because when my dining companions gluttonously devour mounds of garlic bread and lasagna and the sauce, cheese and butter drips from their chins, and they wash the entire mess down with copious amounts of wine while I sit there placidly eating my delicate chopped salad and sipping on a glass of water with a spritz of lime, I’M NOT ANGRY AT ALL! NO, I’M POSITIVELY DELIGHTED WITH MY CHOICES! REALLY I AM. I’M SO HAPPY WITH MY FOOD THAT I DON’T EVEN CARE IF THEY ORDER DESSERT. NOT EVEN WHEN IT’S CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH CHOCOLATE FUDGE ICING. REALLY!

Okay, I feel better now. I think I was harboring some rage.

The authors of the study, David Gal from Northwestern University and Wendy Liu of the University of California, noted that prior research has demonstrated that "people on diets tend to be irritable and aggressive. For instance, in one experiment ... participants who were asked to refrain from consuming a tempting doughnut manifested increased aggression in response to a subsequent insult."

(The lesson here: If you're going to insult someone, give them a doughnut first. They'll be less likely to punch you.)

While the link between exerting self-control and aggressive behavior has been established, the authors were curious at how much the anger would seep into a person's life. They discovered that “… after exerting self-control people exhibit increased preference for anger-themed content, greater interest in faces exhibiting anger, greater endorsement of anger-framed appeals, and greater irritation to others’ attempts to control their behavior."

So to summarize: people that have to exert high levels of self-control, i.e., dieters, liked seeing, hearing and spewing anger. Isn’t that special. Kind of makes me want to go to a Weight Watchers meeting and see what happens.

What strikes me about all of this is that this is why diets don’t work. Because diets are synonymous with deprivation. And no one likes that. I didn’t need a research study to tell me deprivation makes me cranky.

I subscribe to the Ellie Krieger philosophy. Krieger is a registered dietician, author and the star of The Food Network show Healthy Appetite. In her cookbook, The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life she writes.

In my food world there is no fear or guilt, only joy and balance. So no ingredient is ever off-limits. Rather, all of the recipes here follow my Usually-Sometimes-Rarely philosophy. Notice there is no Never.

In her world there is no such thing as a Never food. Amen sister.

She uses this philosophy in her cooking making the Usually foods—colorful vegetables and fruit, whole grains, lean meats and fish, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy and healthful oils—the leading actors in her recipes.

Sometimes foods—regular pasta, white flour and sugar, and foods higher in saturated fat, like chicken thighs—claim a supporting role.

And the Rarely foods—butter, full-fat cheese, bacon, cream, etc.—have cameo appearances.

I’m not bright enough to remember the exact number of servings of fruits and veggies I’m supposed to have daily, but I can look at a restaurant menu or scan a recipe and figure out if it's filled with Usually, Sometimes or Rarely foods and adjust accordingly. And knowing that nothing is ever off-limits makes this girl less cranky.

For more information about Ellie Krieger and her recipes, click here.

Saturday, March 19

Food Spotlight: Garbanzo Beans (Chickpeas)

I opened the refrigerator and peered at its Spartan contents—Greek yogurt, celery, radishes, various cheeses and a door full of random condiments and sauces. (How long does Thai Fish Sauce last anyway?)

Not satisfied I moved on to the pantry where I was greeted by boxes of whole grain pasta, high fiber cereal and protein bars. Good God, I thought, there’s nothing good to eat around here! A sentiment unanimously echoed by my husband and three children.

Of course that’s not true. There’s plenty to eat, it’s just not the food I want to eat. I was craving something sinful, something fatty, salty, sugary and loaded with trans fat. This is exactly why I don’t buy those items. I can’t eat it if I don’t have it.

With a heavy sigh and a shrug of my shoulders, I plodded back to the refrigerator. This time I pulled out a tub of Trader Joe’s Cilantro-Jalapeno Hummus, the celery and radishes and made myself a little crudités plate. And I have to say…um, yummy! That hummus is the best stuff ever!

Finding a quick, healthy snack is always a monumental challenge for me, probably because the entire food industry is out to sabotage me. They’ve built billion-dollar businesses based on convenience. They’ve got “grab-and-go” down to a science, whereas healthy snack options typically fall into a “some assembly required” category.

When I’m in a hurry or just plain hungry, I don’t want to assemble anything. But thankfully, I always keep hummus on hand and when I’m really smart—typically only once a month when there’s a full moon—I cut up vegetables ahead of time so I really do have a “grab-and-go” healthy option.

Sitting at my kitchen table, I was happy I’d selected something good for me. (Although realistically given how my house is stocked I had no choice.) As I relished the cilantro and kick of jalapeno I contemplated all the goodness that I was putting into my body.

Hummus, which is made from garbanzo beans, is a fantastic snack option. The beans are full of protein and fiber, two nutrients that are exceptionally good at stabilizing blood sugar levels. When our blood sugar levels are regulated we don’t get those post-sugar crashes propelling us to reach for the next quick fix. Typically another sugar-laden treat.

The protein and fiber in garbanzo beans make them high in what scientists call "food satiety." A term used to describe how full a food makes us feel and how effective it is at eliminating our hunger and appetite.

According to The World’s Healthiest Foods website, “Participants in a recent study were found to consume fewer snacks and fewer overall calories when supplementing their regular diet with garbanzo beans. They were also found to report greater food satiety, with experiences of reduced appetite and greater food satisfaction.”

All that and it’s a relatively low calorie food too!

Next time you’re scavenging through the fridge and pantry for something to snack on, grab the hummus. But do yourself a favor and cut up your veggies ahead of time.

Tuesday, March 15

The Holy Trinity for Cooking Vegetables

The world tends to revolve around the number three.

There are significant clusters of three: the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three parts to an atom—protons, neutrons and electrons, three primary colors and three trimesters in pregnancy. And of course there's the insignificant: Larry, Moe and Curly, three flavors in Neapolitan ice cream, three minutes in a boxing match and a three-legged race.

Three just makes sense. It seems balanced somehow which is strange since it's an odd number, but things gravitate towards it anyway.

So it's no surprise that it's also the secret to cooking tasty veggies. We all need to eat more veggies and I firmly believe most people don't because they haven't been taught how to prepare them properly. We're seduced by the convenience of steamer bags and canned goods. "Just pop in the microwave for 3 minutes and enjoy!" the advertisements exclaim. Honestly, it's tough to enjoy steamed vegetables. They may be quick, but what's the point of serving them if no one eats them.

I'd like to introduce you to my holy trinity for cooking veggies—olive oil, salt and pepper. That's it. That's all you need. And forget the steamer and the microwave too. Use your oven or your stovetop and get ready to prepare some yummy vegetables your family will actually eat.

The Basic Technique

Of course the basic technique has three steps, how could it not? And each step begins with a C, making this technique the three C's—Cut, Coat, Cook.

(1) Cut up your veggies of choice
(2) Coat them with olive oil, salt and pepper
(3) Cook

The only decision you have to make is, Should I bake them in the oven or saute them on the stove? I've made that a bit easier for you with the list below.

Vegetables good for roasting in the oven (any hard, solid vegetable)

Broccoli (425 degrees, 20-25 minutes)
Potatoes (375 degrees, 30-40 minutes) (a mix of sweet and regular potatoes is particularly good)
Cauliflower (400 degrees, 20-30 minutes)
Cherry tomatoes (375 degrees, 15-20 minutes)
Peppers (450 degrees, 30-40 minutes)
Asparagus (450 degrees, 7-10 minutes)

Note: The cooking times are estimates and will depend on the size of the vegetables and how "done" you like them. It'll take a bit of practice to zero in on how you like to prepare them.

Vegetables good for sauteing on the stovetop (any soft vegetable)

In this technique instead of coating the vegetables beforehand, I simply heat olive oil in a pan on the stove, then add my veggies and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Leafy greens (e.g., spinach, kale, chard)
Yellow squash
Green beans (They're better if you blanche them first, meaning par cook them in boiling water for 3-4 minutes before sauteing them.)

Once you've mastered the holy trinity you can begin adding extras to really amp up the flavor. My go-to extra ingredients are garlic and onions. So I typically have a holy quintet—olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and onions. If you like Italian seasonings try adding a little oregano, thyme, rosemary or basil. If you like spicy food try adding a pinch of crushed red pepper.

Experiment and have fun.

Happy cooking!

Friday, March 11

Five Power Foods for Spring

The daffodils are peeking out of the ground, the dogwood trees are budding and the sun has finally come out. Yay! We're closing in on spring.

Before you venture to the grocery store this weekend, check out the article I wrote for The Health Journal titled "Spring Superfoods." (The Health Journal: Spring Superfoods) In it I discuss five fruits and veggies—strawberries, asparagus, green peas, apricots and fennel—that are in season this spring and loaded with nutrients.

Tuesday, March 8

My Weekly Cooking Companion

Sitting on my kitchen shelves are volumes of cookbooks and cooking magazines. Full of beautifully photographed food, I thumb through them weekly looking for inspiration.

For a special dinner party I often turn to Bobby Flay’s Boy Meets Grill. Since Bobby’s a sauce guy, his recipes are not for the beginner cook or for weeknight dinners. There’s typically three sauces per recipe: one as a marinade, one for basting, and one for dipping. It’s always delicious, but it’s complicated.

And then there’s the dear Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I love her! But almost all her recipes start with, “add one pound of butter, a truckload of cream, and a barrel of sugar.” Thus it’s not a cookbook I frequent for a healthy weekday meal.

There is one cookbook however that I do rely on for delicious, easy and healthy weekday meals. It’s called, The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook by Jack Bishop.

Here’s why I love it.

1) Mr. Bishop uses familiar spices like rosemary, thyme, garlic and sage. (No eye of newt or troll teeth required!) He puts a new spin on some of the old standbys, like asparagus and broccoli. And entices you to try new veggies, like chard, by pairing it with familiar spices.

2) Most of his recipes are relatively quick (under 45 minutes) and easy. 

3) He provides serving suggestions at the end of every recipe giving you full menu ideas if you choose to use it.

4) The food is really delicious. (Not everything mind you, I have tried a few things that I didn’t like, but hey, with 350 recipes in the book there was bound to be a few that didn’t go over well.)

5) He teaches you a single technique and then makes variations on it. For example, he has a whole section on polenta. You learn the basic technique and then he provides 15 different polenta recipes based on it. This type of cooking style builds courage. You learn the basics of technique and which flavors marry well and voila, it encourages you to experiment on your own.

If you’re looking for a new cookbook, you should give this one a try.

Here’s one of my favorite recipes to get you started.

Spring Vegetable Stew with Fennel, Carrots, Asparagus and Peas

1 medium fennel bulb (I don’t like the licorice taste of fennel so I leave this out. Even without this, the stew is excellent.)
2 Tbls extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium shallots, minced
5 medium plum tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and diced
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cups vegetable stock
25 baby carrots, peeled. (about 5 ounces)
1 pound medium asparagus, tough ends snapped off and cut on bias into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 Tbls unsalted butter
Freshly grated Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese.
1. Trim the stems and fronds from the fennel. Discard the stems. Mince 1 tablespoon of the fronds and set aside. Trim a thin slice from the base of the bulb and remove any tough outer layers. Slice the bulb in half and cut out the triangular core. Slice the bulb into long strips about 1/4 inch thick.
2. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add the shallots and saute over medium heat until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and simmer until tomatoes soften, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the fennel strips and cook until softened (stir often), about 10 minutes.
4. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the carrots and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the asparagus and simmer until the asparagus is cooked but crisp (about 10 mins).
5. Stir in the frozen peas and the fennel fronds and cook for a minute or two more.
6. Stir in the butter and stir until it is incorporated into the sauce.
7. Adjust seasonings and serve. Pass the parmegiano to sprinkle on the stew.

Friday, March 4

Food Spotlight: Salmon

You’d think salmon would be a non-controversial food. It’s a lean, low-calorie source of protein, making it a better choice than beef or chicken and it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids which are known to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Fish in general is so beneficial that the American Heart Association recommends eating two or more servings a week.

But, as with just about everything food related, it’s never that simple.

The issue with salmon is whether to eat farm-raised or wild-caught. 

Why all the fuss? Salmon contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a dioxin that scientists believe could be a carcinogen in humans. And the levels of PCBs vary greatly between wild-caught and farm-raised salmon.

What’s a safe level of PCBs?

Here’s where the issue starts to get murky.

The FDA set a safe upper limit of PCBs at 2000 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA set a much stricter (i.e., lower) standard at 24 - 48 ppb. Farmed salmon averages 27 ppb, right in the range set by the EPA. So, technically farmed salmon is well below the limit set by the FDA and okay even according to the EPA, but pushing the upper limits of what the EPA deems as safe.

Wild-caught salmon, on the other hand, averages only 5.3 ppb, five times lower than farmed salmon.

What to do?

While PCBs are an issue, their risk to human life is unclear. WebMD had this to say about salmon:

“The leading cause of death in the U.S.—causing 950,000 deaths a year—is cardiovascular disease. Eating two servings per week of fatty fish, such as salmon, can reduce the risk of fatal heart disease by 40%. The dangers of eating salmon, meanwhile, are unclear, largely theoretical, and based on studies in animals. The risks would appear to be much smaller than that of developing heart disease.”

WebMD further states that, “for most healthy adults, the health benefits of salmon far outweigh the much smaller and less-clear risk that PCBs found in it could cause cancer.”

That said, if limiting PCBs is a concern for you, buy and eat wild-caught salmon. If you’re okay using farm-raised salmon you can reduce the amount of PCBs you ingest by simply removing the skin and dark flesh and either grilling or broiling it so the fat drips off. PCBs are stored in the fat. Cooking this way reduces the PCB content by 20-30%.

All this talk of PCBs hasn't scared me away from salmon. I love it. In fact, I made the following dish this week. It's one of my favorite salmon recipes. It's easy to make and my kids like it too. Well, except my eight-year-old, but she doesn't like anything so her opinion doesn't count.


Salmon with Rosemary (From The South Beach Diet Cookbook)

  • 1 pound salmon
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried, crushed
  • Fresh rosemary sprigs (optional)
  • Capers (optional)
  • Cut the fish into 4 equal-size portions.
  • Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and rosemary in a bowl. Brush the mixture onto the fish.
  • To grill, arrange the fish on a grill rack or use a grill basket sprayed with olive oil cooking spray.
  • Grill over medium-hot coals until the fish flakes easily (allow 4-6 minutes per 1/2" of thickness). If the fish is more than 1" thick, gently turn it halfway through grilling.
  • To broil, spray the rack of a broiler pan with olive oil cooking spray and arrange the fish on it. Broil 4" from the heat for 4-6 minutes per 1/2" of thickness. If the fish is more than 1" thick, gently turn it halfway through broiling.
  • To serve, top the fish with capers, if using, and garnish with rosemary sprigs, if desired.

Tuesday, March 1

A Little Girl Time

Here's what happens when my sisters and I get together.

Tammi, me, Cathy

My mom and her girls. She can dress us up, but
she can't take us anywhere.

My sisters are not only tons of fun but they've been my best friends forever, so it's no surprise that I look forward to our annual tradition of celebrating my mom's birthday with a trip home to Georgia and a lot of girl time. 

My sisters and I ditch our husbands and kids, shack up at my mom's house, pour the wine, eat loads of bad food and watch movies all day and night. Our movie staples are romantic comedies and anything our husbands would hate, e.g., Jane Austen movies, musicals, and films with subtitles.

It's a glorious few days of talking, eating, drinking, more talking, usually some crying, and more talking. And of course we watch movies, sometimes simultaneously with all that other stuff. I always return home happy and rejuvenated. Well, that and a little dehydrated, maybe slightly hungover and kind of bloated, but hey, it's worth it.

Last week was my annual trip and as I drove home I thought, "Everyone should do this. It's fantastic!"

Taking time to visit friends or family IS fantastic and it turns out, it's also healthy for you.

A team from Brigham Young University analyzed data from 148 studies which covered over 300,000 people and discovered that strong social relationships are as beneficial to your health as quitting smoking, losing weight or taking certain medications.

Humans are social creatures. We’re designed to interact and spend time together and now researchers are proving that socializing not only feels good, but it’s good for you!

Of course the opposite is true too. According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead researcher and psychologist of the study, “A lack of social relationships was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

That's particularly bad news since as a society we are becoming more and more isolated. With the internet, social networking sites and working from home, we're spending less face-to-face time with other adults. And that’s not healthy. Isolation is correlated with loneliness and a variety of mental health issues.

So next time you feel guilty about scheduling a coffee date with a friend or a girls/boys night out, don’t. Instead, raise your glass and toast to your health.